Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mohammed Ali Bhamrahad, Peddler

When Mohammed was born (August 1, 1892), the countries we know today didn't exist. During the Ottoman rule "Syria" was the name of a region that was otherwise known as the Levant. The word "Syria" did not depict any separate entity/state but a geographical area the same way we use today the words "Western Europe", or "Far East". Lebanon was in the region of Syria but it was a semi-autonomous mutasarrifiyya (like a country) which was established in 1860. The leader of Lebanon was chosen by European nations and it was off-limits for the Turkish army.

When France took over the (Syrian) region, there were actually 6 countries: the state of Aleppo, state of Damascus, Jabal el druze, Alexandretta, Allawite state and Greater Lebanon. Some of the five other regions were annexed by Lebanon.

Toward the end of the mandate, Alexandretta got annexed by Turkey, Lebanon gained full independence, and the other four were merged together into a new country that adopted the name "Syria".

Lebanon has always been a de facto separate entity since the 1500s even if many historic maps don't show it; France simply decided to put it on paper and make it official.

Mohammed Allay Bomrad was born near Beirut (?) in Damascus, Syria in 1892. He arrived in the Edinburg, North Dakota area in 1915, using that town as his mailing address while he traveled around Walsh, Pembina and Cavalier counties, selling his wares and working on farms during the busy seasons.

As a country peddler, he first made his route with a sack on his back selling notions, toiletries, dress goods, medicines, jewelry and other essentials.

In 1917, he bought his first horse. In 1922, his "one hoss shay" was replaced with a wagon when he bought a second horse, making a team - Bud and Biada, which he treated with utmost care. When talked sharply to them, he would say: "I'm talking Irish."

He wasn't "fussy" about where he slept - hay stacks, hay lofts - but later, when he was better known, he would find lodging and a bite to eat at some farm homes. For a number of years, he frequently stayed at the Sigurdson home west of Gardar.

Although he was thrifty, he was known for his kindness and generosity. During the flu epidemic of 1918, he spent weeks helping farmers who were victims of the "flu bug," never mentioning pay. He loaned money, trusted his customers when they were unable to pay. He sent much money to relatives in Syria and retained his Islamic faith by reading publications. He made regular trips to Vang on election days to mark his "X" as he had received his citizenship papers in Cavalier County. He stated it was a privilege for an American to vote.

"The Syrian Muslim, Mohammed Ali Bhamrahad...He lived among the Icelanders in America his entire life. He was
quite a legend and a very sweet man." - Janet Muldoon.  [Photo taken west of Mountain, ND and up the hill on the
Pembina Escarpment, also known as Schroeder Hill, on the Swanson farm, rural Cavalier County, North Dakota]

Although he had enjoyed good health, he had been the victim of several accidents, runaways and once losing all his wares when his horses stepped off a bridge crossing a flooded area.

While all his material possessions could be contained in his wagon, he stated his wealth was immeasurable. His unfailing health permitted him to be amid the beauties of nature, the joy of music and most of all - the hundreds of friends he had acquired while living in this country.

Eventually he retired to Canada where he expected to enter a nursing home among relatives. He passed away in February 1989 at age 97.


Walsh Heritage, ND USA 1881-1981 Vol 1,Page 564
Bhamrahad, Mathy: Syria, Oct 5, 1937, 1st papers Rolette Co, Vol D-7, p.330
Bhamrahad, Mathy: Syria, Oct 5, 1940, 2nd papers Rolette Co Vol P-18, p. 255
Bhamrahad, Mohammed Ali: Syria, May 18, 1928, 2nd papers Cavalier Co, Vol F-22 p. 008

(Great Plains Quarterly April 2004)
Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota By William C. Sherman, Paul Whitney, and John Guerrero

This remarkable ethnographic study of the Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota is unique. The data and information are original, never mind that the voices heard are nearly those of the early settlers, certainly those of their children. The authors use the records of the late 1930s (early 1940s) Federal Writers Projects and Works Progress Administration to understand the reasons for Arab migration to North Dakota and the Great Plains, their employment practices, lifestyles (marriage patterns, culinary habits), and religious traditions, their distribution, settlements, institutions (or lack thereof), and finally their near total assimilation.

If it were homesteading that attracted many Syrians to the Midwest, it was peddling that made them successful. Homesteading also explains why more Lebanese than Syrians settled there. Syrians from Mt. Lebanon came from smaller, rural communities and farmed. Those from Syria proper were often from Damascus and Aleppo, established cities.

An old Arab proverb states "Trade takes a man far" and if Syrians do anything well it is buying and selling. An entire economic chain developed among them wherein Syrian wholesalers in the Northeast supplied "peddlers" with goods that they brought to needy customers throughout the West. To facilitate economic success, the community published a Syrian Business Directory (1908), which included the names and addresses of every Syrian enterprise in the United States. Peddling Syrians is not a stereotype. It was their signature occupation.

Another distinguishing characteristic of this book is its inclusion and respect for the early, oft-ignored Arab Muslim settlers. If anything, emphasis has always been on the Christian emigrants (of all denominations and rites) who settled in large Northeastern cities. Today's Arab-American scholarship, of course, can't and doesn't overlook Muslims, but to see how the Syrian Muslims at the turn of the century accommodated rural American society (and vice versa) is an eye-opener. Many scholars claim that the first Mosque in the United States was in Ross, North Dakota.

Prairie Peddlers is a study in rural assimilation that broadens our understanding of the entire Syrian-Lebanese experience in this country. Here were communities without their own churches which elsewhere served as the source of ethnic maintenance. To be a Syrian or Lebanese American meant being a Melkite, Maronite, or Antiochian Orthodox. Without churches, assimilation would proceed rapidly, as was the case in North Dakota. These communities did struggle to stay alive via the Mahrajans ("outdoor picnics") they regularly held.

What caught my attention was how their isolation created a gap in knowledge about their own roots and traditions as well as the larger socio-cultural and political forces that shaped both Syrian-Lebanese identity and assimilation all over the United States. While the authors did do their homework using the commonly available information, they do not relate the attitudes, knowledge, and opinions of the Syrian-Lebanese to larger historical issues. This situation is evident, for example, in how the group identified itself and how the authors attempt to adjust for it. Throughout the text there is reference to Arabic people. Arabic is a language. Arab is a people. Arabic-speaking people would be accurate. In all fairness, however, the modern usage seemed to be "Arabic people," but it is incorrect.

Were the Syrian-Lebanese Syrians or Lebanese or both? They came as Syrians, they thought of themselves as Syrians, and even spoke "Syrian" (another error). In any given chapter, they are referred to as either or both, often in contradiction to the said plan of the book. Though this is no real problem for knowledgeable readers, others might get confused. Yet this is not the authors' fault. Many Syrians became Lebanese after World War II and after a concerted effort by the Maronite/Lebanese owned Al-Hoda press. After years of struggle and debate, the solution was to call the community Syrian-Lebanese. [Trish:  See above where the terminology used is explained and made plain...]

Being an ethnographic study that allows its subjects to speak in the first person, Prairie Peddlers offers no interpretative analysis in terms of causality. For example, the authors quote the early histories of the Syrian-Lebanese that indicate the group was politically inept. No reason is given. It might have something to do with the nature of the host society because the Syrian-Lebanese in Latin America have claimed the presidency of at least two countries and countless other municipal governments. They have now won political offices here as well, and oddly enough many come from the Dakotas and the Midwest.

Prairie Peddlers incorporates pages of "data" (immigrant names, place of origin, landownership, date of naturalization, and so on). Rare photographs add to its merits. All in all, it is a great read.